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Avoiding “Tower Of Babel” Meetings

Tom FarrarConsultant
Always working for better, faster and cheaper solutions!
Meetings to discuss business process can waste time, and often do .  The meeting's dialog can get confusing when participants have different professional perspectives and backgrounds.  A jointly-developed process picture helps wade through the confusing dialog.
 “A picture is worth a thousand words” applies to meetings where different professional backgrounds often create confusion. While each participant’s view is based on professional experience and education, almost certainly all participant perceptions are different. 

The following quote clarifies the value of a picture:
“We are visual creatures. When you doodle an image that captures the essence of an idea, you not only remember it, but you also help other people understand and act on it - which is generally the point of meetings in the first place.”    
  - Tom Wujec
While a picture can be critical to unifying a meeting’s discussion, it is often not included.

A “Typical” Meeting Scenario
The Invoice Payment Process meeting ended with participants nodding their heads in agreement. Though the discussion had been exhausting, the participants believed the vendor payment issues would be resolved.
The Accounting representative saw the problem as inadequate reporting, with the solution belonging to Procurement and Information Technology. Information Technology (IT) perceived the problem as the invoice accrual process, and was sure the solution belonged to Accounting. On the other hand, the Procurement representatives weren’t clear how accruals impacted vendor payments, and decided the problem was a system error IT and Accounting must resolve.
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”   - Strother Martin, “Cool Hand Luke” Movie
In the mind of the participants, the meeting's discussion would solve the problem. In reality, there was confusion about the problem’s root, a workable solution, and who would be responsible for implementation. 

As typical to this scenario, the Invoice Payment Process would continue to pay vendors incorrectly and late. This “typical” meeting failed.  

A “Tower Of Babel” Meeting
The described scenario is a classic “Tower Of Babel”* meeting, where discussion becomes confused due to professional language barriers.
*According to the Bible’s “Tower Of Babel” story, humanity lived together and spoke a single language. But after unacceptable human behavior, God confounded their speech so they could no longer understand each other and scattered them around the world.
Accounting spoke “accruals”, IT talked “bits and bytes” and Procurement harped on “just in time” deliveries.  When engaged in discussion, the meeting participants spoke in professional language if at all. group.pngThis quote describes the futility: 

“Well, it's really no use our talking in the way we have been doing if the words we use mean something different to each of us...and nothing.” 
  ― Malcolm Bradbury,  Eating People is Wrong

Clearly sharing ideas with others can be difficult, as ideas are not understood in the same way. Add in diverse professions and cultures, and finding common ground can be impossible. The “Tower Of Babel” meeting must overcome the language barriers.

What Could Have Been Done Differently?
If participants had first drawn a picture of the Invoice Payment Process, the meeting would have had a greater chance of success. A well-drawn picture would establish a visual frame-of-reference for participants to communicate throughout the meeting.

But what kind of picture might that be? Using a template is the first step. The template below shows the transformation of “inputs to outputs” critical to any business process, Accounts Payable or other. 

image1.pngThough generic in view, the template boxes and arrows begins to clarify the process flow and interdependencies. Looking left-to-right the diagram transforms input to output. Importantly, the diagram includes a feedback loop to ensure process goals were successfully completed. 

With slight modification the generic template reflects the primary steps of the meeting’s Invoice Payment Process:

image2.pngThe modified picture substitutes Payment Process terminology into the template: Input (Procure Product) > Add Value (Process Invoice) > Output (Pay Invoice) boxes. The additional feedback arrows indicate the Adjust Process can take place at multiple points in the Invoice Payment Process. With these modifications the picture takes further shape, providing participants a common reference view for discussion.

The next step takes the simplistic process diagram and breaks down the activity boxes into specific tasks. For instance, the additional tasks for the diagram’s original four boxes would be:

image3.pngThis additional detail adds depth to the visual image, which facilitates robust meeting discussion. But there is one step left to finish a sound diagram for meeting discussion. The picture only tells “what” is to be done, and not “who” is doing it. 
Answering the “who” stretches the picture into lanes of “who does what” creating a picture like:
image4.pngNote the map still retains the original activities: Procure Product > Process Invoice > Pay Invoice. As stated earlier, the Adjust Process activity would be strategically placed throughout the diagram as a result of the meeting discussion.

What Opportunities Does The Map Present?
Though the level-of-detail remains summarized, the picture shows the Invoice Payment Process steps and who performs these steps. The picture’s simplicity is critical to meaningful discussion and understanding. The drawn process can open up discussion on these potential issues and opportunities:
  • Hand-offs between parties
  • Complex process details
  • Burden shift between parties
  • Duplication of work or data
  • Delays and constraints in process flow
  • Non-value-adding activities
  • Placement of feedback loops
Using the final process diagram’s boxes and arrow flows as guides, meeting participants can visually and systematically address the issues and opportunities. This approach ensures the discussion is focused on the same place in the process flow. As this discussion clarifies the issues, and addresses inefficiency and errors, solutions come easier and the meeting becomes successful.

Final Thoughts
Business meetings today are often “Tower Of Babel” meetings where participants think and act according to their professional backgrounds. Such a meeting can lead to confused participants and inadequate results. 

But meetings don’t have to be confusing. People are visual learners. A simple, yet concise, picture can ensure meeting participants are working from a unified front. With a clear picture of the business activities the “Tower Of Babel” meeting can be avoided and successful collaboration achieved.   

Perhaps Walt Disney said it best:
 “Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.”
~ Walt Disney
Disney’s statement reinforces “A picture is worth a thousand words”.
Thank you for reading my article, feel free to leave me some feedback regarding the content or to recommend future work. If you liked this article please click the  star / good article button at the bottom right of this article.  - Tom
Tom FarrarConsultant
Always working for better, faster and cheaper solutions!

Comments (2)

Pictures are powerful.

But many times people believe a "digital slide" with a paragraph of tiny text equals a picture. And if they read the text to you, it is even more meaningful. Sigh.


if they read the text to you

One of the things that drives me up a wall is when someone creates a PowerPoint and then, when presenting it, reads it to me. What parts of my day are not spent writing are spent reading (unless my bride has tasks that need accomplishing) so I'm pretty good at it, so having someone read to me, especially in a setting in which there's supposed to be a discussion of the issues presented in the PowerPoint, is almost insulting.


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